Friday, December 18, 2009

Vitamin Junkies

Having just deposited 25 cents into the parking meter opposite Vitamin Express in Berkeley, I was hoping to quickly run in and buy some Vitamin B-12 tablets. As I entered the store, I soon realized that the ten minutes that I had allocated for my transaction was probably going to be inadequate. The store was filled with all sorts of strange looking people, many of whom appeared to be on a mission to find the magical potion or lotion.

I started frequenting vitamin stores with my mother many years ago. She was a devote of Prevention magazine and thus was the first of many vitamin junkies that I would be exposed to over the years.

As a general rule, these junkies are a rather sickly looking group of individuals, many of whom appear to be afflicted with some degree of hypochondriasis.

It’s the magical pill, that is the allure, whether it be an exotic berry from the virgin rain forest of Peru or a concoction formulated by some bearded biochemist from Chechnya.

The food supplement business is a 15.5 billion industry, that is largely unregulated by any government agency. Does this sound like the financial services industry?

In 1994, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education act was established. The bill, known as DSHEA, was largely supported by the "champion" of progressive causes, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah and had the immediate effect of eviscerating any jurisdiction that the FDA would have over the food supplement industry.

The vitamin companies can essentially claim anything they want with total impunity. With so many of us addicted to the ‘’quick fix’’ of pill taking, the industry has hit upon a fail-safe business plan that has proven profitable in both up and down economies.

There are two issues that the consumer needs to be concerned with. Number one is, does the product contain what is stated on the label? Independent laboratory analysis of many products has indicated that too often, either the product did not contain the potency that was stated, or that the product was contaminated in some fashion. The second issue is even more important, in that it goes to the heart of the matter of whether we even need to consume food supplements at all.

Almost every long term peer reviewed study of isolated vitamins has indicated that they do not have any beneficial effect on our health. Beta carotene is a good example of a nutrient that was tested in isolation, where in nature (real food), it exists with hundreds of other carotenoids. Eating cruciferous vegetables is far superior to taking a pill. Unfortunately, no one is going to get rich selling broccoli.

Following a diet that revolves around whole grains, legumes and what we in Berkeley refer to as the Rainbow Coalition of fruits and vegetables, will provide all the known nutrients as well as the thousands of other important compounds that go into the make up of real food. Vitamin B-12 is the one exception to this rule. The bacteria that produce Vitamin B-12 can’t reliably be obtained through the soil these days so that vegans need to obtain it from an external source such as fortified food products or sublingual tablets, which is where my story began.

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